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Dear Family Whisper: How to 'Convince' a 6-Year-Old to Cooperate

06/18/2014 02:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014
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Dear Family Whisperer,

My question is regarding discipline. I have really tried to be consistent about disciplining my 6- year-old son, and by no means do I let him rule the roost. But he just does not "get" that it is better for him, for me and for my husband, if he toes the line. Recently, the issues have been his refusal to do what I say or answering back with rude comments he has learned at school. We find ourselves in a cycle of shouting, and this is not what I like. I have tried rewards which have had little effect, charts and stickers, etc. I do not know what plan would be best for a spirited child who fights back with words to everything I say.

--Embattled Mom

Dear Embattled Mom,

Great question! Many parents ask how do I "get" my kid to behave? Here's the short answer: There's no "best plan" for "a spirited child who fights back" -- or any child, for that matter. Among other reasons, it's never just about the child.

Your son might have come into the world with a challenging personality, but he doesn't exist in a vacuum. From the time he was born, your "spirited" little one has been -- and continues to be -- shaped by you, your husband and by whatever situations and surprises your family encounters.

Of course, he shouldn't "rule the roost." You're the parent and know better. But now you're locked in a power struggle -- his will against yours. The negativity debilitates everyone. More toe-the-line "discipline" won't help.

My guess is that the tantrums started in toddlerhood. Like many parents, you might have blamed his willfulness on the "terrible twos." But he is still using the same tactics because back-talk, whining and crying earn him the "reward" that matters most: attention.

To change that pattern, walk away when he's disrespectful. Don't engage with hopes of gaining "power over." Leave the dance floor; change the dance.

Equally important, instead of seeing him as The Problem, help him become part of the solution. Capitalize on his high energy by giving him real (age-appropriate) opportunities to help "run" the family. When children feel that they're truly needed, they want to participate. They also follow rules better when they help make them.

At your next family check-in, describe what's happening. You might say, "It hasn't been a very happy place around here lately. When you [ignore me/yell/use bad words], it hurts my feelings and makes me angry, and I worry about you. When we fight, both of us feel bad afterwards. Daddy's in this too, so let's figure out what we can do differently."

Admit your part; he'll follow your example. "I'm going to try to be more patient and to not yell at you either. I hope you will try to be nicer to me, too. Otherwise, one of us has to call 'time out' until we've calmed down. It's not good for us to be mean to each other."

Allow him to make suggestions. For example, if you lock horns over a particular issue -- say, video games -- get his input on what's "fair."

Always bring the discussion back to what it means to be part of "our" family: "We try to treat each other with respect. We don't yell. We don't use bad words. We don't slam doors. And when we do, we apologize. We also forgive."

Remember too, that children are ego-centric and often impulsive. They need adults to show them how to wait their turn and be quiet in church. The best "discipline" teaches them to be aware of their feelings and to withstand frustration, boredom, disappointment, failure and loss -- everyday challenges that are hard for all of us.

Have conversations throughout the day that make him aware of his own and others' feelings ("The boy in that movie must have been so scared"). Note situations and times of day when meltdowns are more likely ("Driving on highways always makes me tense," or "When we oversleep and have to rush, we fight more.")

Link body-states to emotion and offer alternatives ("When you're grouchy like this, it's a good idea to have a snack," or "When I'm tired, I don't feel like talking either"). Share how you and Dad manage your moods. Help him figure out what works for him.

Stick with it; he'll become more cooperative, you more patient. And when he is calm, follows instructions or does something thoughtful, thank him -- not for "being good," but for being a good citizen who helps keep the family strong and safe.

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this topic in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.